Wireless Networks Finally Tap Into Urban Markets

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Wireless mesh networks have experienced their most significant growth in small-to-midsize towns, which have set them up for applications such as public-safety networks for first responders and municipal-utility monitoring. Larger cities have been slower to adopt mesh technology because of cost and infrastructure issues, and, in some cases, politics.

But that lack of interest seems to be waning. According to MuniWireless.com, a Web site that tracks wireless networking trends, the municipal wireless networking market will have a CAGR of 134 percent between 2004 and 2007, and will be worth more than $400 million in the United States next year. Much of this growth is coming from bigger cities.

"We've noticed a tremendous increase in interest among the largest U.S. cities," said Esme Vos, founder of MuniWireless.com, in a wireless networking Webinar sponsored by Cisco earlier this month. "It's no longer a question of whether these cities will do it, but of how, when and what they'll use the technology for."

Cities such as San Francisco and Philadelphia have announced citywide wireless networking initiatives that are designed to provide low-cost or even free public wireless access, but these efforts are but a subgroup of the broader wireless activity.

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"There's a lot of skepticism about the San Francisco and Philadelphia plans because people don't think Earthlink -- ' the service provider that's building the networks' -- can make enough money off of it to stay in business," said Todd Truitt, product manager for outdoor mesh products at Cisco Systems. "There can be a lot of politics involved because the cities don't want to pay for the networks themselves, but service providers don't want to do it for free."

That said, the perceived need for wireless is on the rise as the technology improves and larger cities see the need to have robust remote-networking capabilities, especially after disasters such as last year's Hurricane Katrina debacle in New Orleans.

"Most people [in cities] want multi-use networks," Vos said. "They want to roll out more fiber and deliver higher bandwidth applications over the fiber and over wireless networks."

Where solution providers come in is as advisers -- and, of course, as salespeople -- to these municipalities.

"The key for these cities is to identify which applications they want, and the VARs are the ones who can make that happen for them," Truitt said.

Cisco has set up wireless mesh networks in Madison, Wis., for public safety and public utility workers who use the technology for things like meter reading and inspections; and in Austin, Texas, where oil field workers use remote wireless networks backed up by solar power to connect back to their companies. Cisco also is working with Houston to set up networks for video surveillance and applications such as handling credit card charges in public parking lots.

"We're seeing about a 50 percent growth rate in mobile products quarter over quarter," Truitt said. "Bigger cities are rolling out the technology faster abroad than they are over here, but tier-two cities are really taking off."